It is astonishing that Bisbee ever got started if you think about how hard it was to get here. The first prospectors and settlers had to travel from Tucson or Tombstone, winding up the slopes of the Mule Mountains and then down again through steep, rugged canyons sometimes occupied by unfriendly Indians before turning a spade of earth or filing a mining claim. As mining expanded and people arrived, the road from the west began to take shape. After climbing up from Banning Station where a toll was charged and extra horses or mules added, dusty travellers reached Mule Pass. At 6030 feet, the high point between Bisbee and Tombstone was called the Divide. Some said it was the southern tip of the great Continental Divide that separates the U.S. east from west, but that geological distinction is actually found in New Mexico. Bisbee’s Divide is local: it separates the two sides of the Mule Mountains and offers an awe-inspiring vista of the old mining camp.
For the first 30 years, the winding road down the mountainside was narrow and treacherous, requiring both skill and courage to travel. Like most roads and trails that developed on the American frontier, it was carved out for horses and wagons. But it was primitive and dangerous and accidents were frequent. Automobiles started to appear after the turn of the century and the old winding road was too rough for the horseless carriage. In 1912, the new state of Arizona began to re-grade the road using a force of prison inmates to do the work. In less than two years, it was completed and a reporter for the Bisbee Daily Review took a test run in his Overland automobile driving from downtown up Tombstone Canyon and the Divide Road, over the top and down the other side. He called it a “perfect road…the grade is easy, curves are broad and gauged so as to avoid a collision…the Overland glides over the surface, the machine’s springs could be dispensed with. They are useless on this road.” No doubt a traveler from the present would be less enthused about the ride. But making it passable for cars was the key, and for the next half century the Divide Road was the route in and out of town. It was also U.S. Highway 80, the main east-west artery until Interstate 10 was completed in the 1960’s. Much of the car, bus and truck traffic rolling across the southern United States came down the Divide Road and through Bisbee. Truckers knew it was a tricky stretch and tourists were often reluctant to give it a try when they reached Mule Pass. Many stopped at The Top Café to fortify themselves for the descent. As the nation embraced larger recreational vehicles like trailers and campers, it became apparent that the old winding road was a problem. Accidents added to the cry for change. According to a December 1958 report, 31 cars had been hauled off the divide or the hills in just 15 months, and between 1955 and 1958, six people had died in car wrecks. Clearly, a better route had to be found.
That route would take travellers under Mule Pass through a tunnel that eliminated the narrow curves and steep drop offs of the old road. Funds were authorized on January 9, 1957 and a contractor hired. Peter Kiewit and Sons began work on February 23. It was from the first a daunting project. A 6-foot by 7-foot pilot tunnel was drilled near the ceiling of the larger opening to drain water that percolated through the rock from summer storms and from two natural springs nobody knew were there. The main tunnel is 1400 feet in length, and was the longest in the state when it was built. According to Arizona Department of Transportation records, it is 23-feet, 11-inches high at center and 38-feet curb to curb. The floor slopes for drainage and the grade through the tunnel is 6.5%, meaning that one end is 91-feet higher than the other. As 55,000 cubic yards of rock were blasted out, steel ribs were placed every three feet to shore up the walls and roof. Thirty- one inches of concrete cover the arched interior.
It was dangerous work. Records indicate that 400 man-days were lost through accidents and one person died during construction. The project was completed in late 1958 and the new route into town was dedicated and opened on December 19. Both Governor Ernest McFarland and Governor-elect Paul Fannin were on hand along with a congressional delegation and a host of dignitaries and guests. The Bisbee High School Band and the 36th Army Band from Fort Huachuca played for the ceremony. Governor McFarland cut the copper ribbon and led a procession through the tunnel. Later, the High School student council served lunch for the dignitaries in the new Bisbee High School cafeteria, though the school would not open until the next month.
The Mule Pass tunnel has been the way in and out of Bisbee for over fifty years. It is often called the time tunnel by more recent arrivals because it feels like you pass into an earlier century when emerging on the canyon side. The old divide road is still there winding up from West Boulevard along the hills to the top. For a long time, drivers could still make the journey up or down the narrow path until erosion blocked the way a few years ago. Now everyone travels the 1400 foot roadway under the mountain. The concrete walls are stained with the seeping water that cannot be stopped. The highway department has worked continually since 1958 to keep the walls from degrading. They will be there as long as the tunnel exists. Nature, it seems, likes to remind us who is in charge.
Letters and images carved in metal can be seen above each portal giving the name and date plus a sculpture of the old mule teams that trekked over the divide to turn Bisbee into one of the largest and richest mining towns in the country. The letters and figures are rusted with age, a reminder of passing time. U.S. Highway 80 is now just State Highway 80. Copper mining ceased many years ago. The traffic in and out of Bisbee is mostly made up of residents going about their lives or visitors discovering the charm and history of the mountain town. But it isn’t hard to imagine when you drive through Mule Pass Tunnel, on your very first trip or just coming home again that you are going back in time, back to Bisbee.